Analog vs Digital

 In Musing, Uncategorized

I’ve been thinking recently about the difference between the analog and the digital, in particular with reference to musical instruments. It seems to me that digital devices often lack a lot of the flexibility of their analog counterparts.

acoustic guitarConsider the guitar. To play it you press the strings against certain frets to select a chord and then strum to make a sound. Simple enough? Alright, but you can also slap the strings, or the body, or slide you fingers along the strings, or bend them as you play, or pluck the strings on the tuning head or… a host of other things. In the hands of an expert some quite remarkable sounds can be produced.

digital guitarNow consider the digital equivalent. There are buttons for each of the chords and a switch to strum. Sure, you can play a bunch of straight tunes, but a lot is missing. You can’t bend it. You can’t slap it. Or rather, you can, but it has no meaning in the digital world. You can do the things the designer intended you to do and that’s about it. And that’s kind of sad.

How do we make digital devices that can be manipulated as organically as an acoustic guitar? That don’t just offer you the choice of 69 different buttons to press, but which offer a rich space of possibilites for exploration. It’s not just a matter of turn buttons into sliders, it has something to do with emergent complexity. To some degree I think it fights against our notions of good design. We don’t want clearly labeled orthogonal functions, we want a complex realm of subtle interactions.

In the case of a guitar we can think of it at two levels. As a beginner we can think in terms of chords that are turned on and off by moving our fingers, and we can produce pleasing results by operating the instrument purely at this level, but it tends to be characterless.

We also have access to the system at a lower level, in terms of the strings and the wood. By straying from the perfect fingering of the abstract level, we can begin to add character to our music. This extra control comes at a cost, there is much more room for error, but the freedom it provides is worth the price. If we want we can ignore the abstract level altogether and play the instrument in completely unconventional ways.

We can’t do the same thing with digital devices because the abstract interaction is the only level available to us. This is considered good design because it makes the device more easier to use and predictable, but it makes interaction feel much more sterile and, well, predictable.

I think the problem is somehow inherent in the nature of a digital device because the interface is kept separate from the implementation. Whereas on a guitar the interface and the implementation are one. Adding more knobs to our controllers isn’t going to change anything if the implementation remains hidden inside a black box.

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Showing 4 comments
  • rakkun

    What about The Guitar Zeroes?


  • Jimmy Maher

    Are we talking about an acoustic guitar versus the Guitar Hero controller here? Because… well, a real electric guitar is most definitely going to sound different depending on how you manipulate it, every bit as much as an acoustic. An electric guitar is also as analog as an acoustic. (Electric does not necessarily or even usually mean digital, nor does acoustic necessarily mean analog.)

    If you’re talking about a game controller… well, that’s a game controller, not a musical instrument. The whole point of it is to be vastly simpler than the real thing. If Guitar Hero fans wanted to really learn to play guitar, they wouldn’t need the game, would they? They are rather seeking the rush of being a “guitar hero” without having to put in the years of practice. I get your point basically, but I don’t think this comparison is a particularly apt one.

  • Malcolm

    Are we talking about an acoustic guitar versus the Guitar Hero controller here? Because… well, a real electric guitar is most definitely going to sound different depending on how you manipulate it, every bit as much as an acoustic. An electric guitar is also as analog as an acoustic.

    I absolutely agree that an electric guitar is every bit as analog as an acoustic. It also allows you, to a certain degree, to be ‘hands-on’ with the electric signal and manipulate it through various effects pedals. This is exactly the kind of low-level access I think is valuable.

    I suppose my point wasn’t specifically about the Guitar Hero game, but about self expression in video games in general. When it just comes down to X choices on Y orthogonal axes, there isn’t really any room for style. There is a tension between making it easy to be good and making it possible to be great and Guitar Hero, as you correctly state, comes down heavily on the “make it easy to be good” side. That’s not a criticism, it is the game’s strongest drawcard, but it sacrifices something.

    Why do we put up with musical instruments that are so bloody hard to play when we have technology that can make music much more easily? The answer is: most of us don’t. We make music by playing CDs or MP3s — but if we want music that is really our own, we accept the difficult as a necessary cost for real self-expression. There is a design lesson in the for games, but I’m still trying to figure it out.

  • Malcolm

    David of of Wolfire Games recognises a similar distinction in his design tour of Gish. He says:

    Most side-scroller games have relatively direct controls. For example, there’s usually a ‘jump’ key that shoots your character upwards and is reactivated when you hit the ground. In Gish there is no jump key, not really, but if you compress your body and then expand and shift your weight upwards, you leap off the ground. This seems like a lot more work than just pressing a jump button, but it’s a good example of the difference between shallow controls and deep ones.

    Gish has deep controls because they work at a level below what you explicitly intend to do.

    … At first this control scheme feels pretty awkward, especially since basic tricks like jumping are not very clearly explained. However as you get used to it it starts to feel a lot more natural and intuitive than the explicit controls in many other games.

    That distinction between ‘shallow’ and ‘deep’ controls is exactly what I was trying to get at (and is a lot more clearly expressed than my rambling above).

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